More than a century ago, colleges and universities feared that outside forces such as corporations or state lawmakers would infringe upon academic freedom, but today the threat to free inquiry has shifted to internal campus forces, a report shows.
Politicized student bodies and radicalized faculty have proved more than willing to disregard academic freedom in the name of “academic justice,” as one Harvard student put it. Polls consistently have shown that large pluralities, if not majorities, of students favor restricting speech that is upsetting or offensive.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said the biggest threat to academic freedom comes from students and faculty who believe “psychological safety from hearing viewpoints that they disagree with is more important than the ability to articulate arguments or listen to the opposing side in a sober, thoughtful manner.”
“Early on, the great threat to academic freedom perceived by the movers and shakers of higher education was meddlesome trustees, big business and state legislatures who were willing to invade campus with narrow and parochial views and shut down the free speech of academics,” Mr. Wood said. “Most of us think that is no longer the great danger. The great danger is not coming from outside of the university, but from within it.”
The National Association of Scholars released a report on Feb. 1 documenting changing perceptions of why academic freedom is important and what imperils it.
“Charting Academic Freedom,” written by NAS communications director David Randall, catalogs 14 statements on academic freedom spanning 103 years, beginning with the declaration of principles issued by the American Association of University Professors in 1915 and ending with the statement of principles issued last year by Students for Free Expression.
The statements are broken down into 25 contrasting categories, such as whether the statement grounds academic freedom in the pursuit of truth and the purpose of the university.
One of the report’s main findings is that academic freedom and the legal right to freedom of speech are often conflated by today’s defenders of free inquiry on campus, even though the concepts are of different “origin, legal standing, and applicability to higher education.”
In the 1915 statement, the American Association of University Professors presented academic freedom as an extralegal right that faculty members should have and that the general public, boards of trustees and state legislatures should respect.
Mr. Wood said contemporary statements on academic freedom tend to treat free inquiry as “good for its own sake” and “self-evidently important,” without providing further justification.
“We’re concerned about the pattern that the grounding idea, why we would want academic freedom in the first place, which is the pursuit of truth, has disappeared from a lot of the more recent statements,” he said. “A milder form of the pursuit of truth is the pursuit of knowledge, and even that has disappeared from a great many of these statements.”
Another trend is the sheer volume of statements regarding academic freedom issued in the past few years. Of the 14 statements examined in the report, nine were published in 2015 or later.
Mr. Wood said the flurry of activity is indicative of growing concern about the state of the university.
“We are in this moment in which something dramatic has happened,” the NAS president said, “which has led for a felt need in higher education to reformulate the concept of academic freedom and to restate it.”
Defenders of academic freedom disagree about the best way to combat the threat posed by students, faculty and administrators.
The National Association of Scholars has proposed a number of “Freedom to Learn Amendments” to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which would require, among other things, that universities receiving federal funds protect the rights of their students to speak and associate freely.
At the state level, the Goldwater Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council have proposed competing model legislation to address the problem.
The model legislation proposed by the Goldwater Institute, a think tank based in Phoenix, would require universities to adopt policies strongly affirming “the importance of free expression” and nullify any existing speech codes.
Administrators would be prohibited from “disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial, whom members of the campus community wish to hear from.” Any restrictions on the time, place or manner of speech must be “viewpoint- and content-neutral” and advance a “compelling institutional interest.”
Versions of the Goldwater policy have been enacted in North Carolina and adopted by the University of Wisconsin system and are under consideration in several other states.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, countered with the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act. The legislation would eliminate “free speech zones,” protect students from disciplinary action for stating their beliefs and require students to be educated on their rights to freedom of speech.
The act is different because it does not require penalties, such as suspension or expulsion, for students who violate the policy. The American Legislative Exchange Council argues that mandating punishment for misbehavior would give university administrators more power to discipline students with whom they disagree.
“The Students for Life chapter at a public university protesting against the CEO of Planned Parenthood should not have to worry about a biased pro-choice administrator punishing the group because they don’t like the graphics on their signs,” Shelby Emmett, director of the council’s Center to Protect Free Speech, wrote in a blog post.
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